Free Promotion on Social Media VS Paid Advertising

  • Many small business owners swear by social media marketing and paid advertising seems to be the only way to achieve noticeable results on social media. 
  • Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms constantly modify their algorithms. So, small business owners should keep an eye on them to adjust their strategies accordingly. 
  • Would you like to know what social media marketing is like with only free promotions? Well, our author tried on himself and here is what he found out.  ​Can Free Promotion on Social Media Replace Paid Advertising

This has been debated for years and I’m sure that it is something that readers of Savvy SME wonder about on occasion. For over 4 months, from June – September 2017, I decided to put it to the test. 

Why you ask?  During the week, I work in sales and marketing, but after hours, my great love is the local movie industry. Performers are often expected to maintain a high profile but you can’t always rely on the media to be interested enough to write about you. Social media sounded like the perfect solution because I could then give myself my own coverage.

When social media first took off, the big promise was that it would be the great leveller. Every day people and small businesses that didn’t have giant advertising budgets would now get their name or product out there and the masses would come. We witnessed the meteoric rise of various Myspace and YouTube stars. Bands and media personalities were catapulted to fame overnight.

Social Media Led to Many Controversies

Myspace died quickly but was soon followed by a plethora of successors like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Snapchat and LinkedIn. They inspired a whole industry of pundits, gurus and ninjas, each teaching us how we can be successful like them using social media. Many claim you’ll drive hordes of followers to your page and make untold millions. Some certainly have the YouTube views to back their statements.

I needed to become at least a minor celebrity, so I looked at the Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts of a number of the big Hollywood names and saw that they had followings ranging from 500,000 to millions.  I could see that trying to get these sort of numbers was not realistic, but I had to at least try and see where it got me.

Large Number of Social Media Followers Work Miracles

Those with huge followings on social media can reach hundreds of thousands of people with just the click of a button. By comparison, the viewership of the big Australian morning TV shows is around the 500,000 mark. With the former, if you built it, you could post for free whenever you like but with the latter, you have to pay big dollars for every single advertisement.

There’s a thriving market for those with large social media followings to charge businesses for tweets, Instagram posts and other updates. I wasn’t looking at becoming a social media celebrity and charging $25,000 a post to endorse someone’s toothpaste. My hope was simply to build a big enough following to be considered for a lead role in a local indie movie or TV commercial.

Could I use the information given by big name marketing gurus to build a massive following for free, and bypass the expense of going through PR agencies and advertising companies? I was about to find out due to changing circumstances with my sales team. We’d come to the end of our contract with a major manufacturer and were about to become a vendor agnostic agency. With the changeover, we needed to create our own customer relation management program.

For two weeks, I went through vertical markets in the online yellow pages while cutting and pasting information into our new database. It was tedious work so I was able to put on the headphones and listen to the biggest name speakers. All up, I absorbed around 50 hours’ worth, jotted down notes and put the teachings into action.

Every morning, I put in an hours work, and each evening, a minimum of 3 more. On weekends, if I wasn’t on set, I often did a further 16 hours. Over 4 months, I clocked up well over 576 hours to test out the claims. 

Keep Up with Algorithm Changes

Over the long term, this would be unsustainable because the workload itself would have burnt me out. I could tell that I wasn’t going to get to millions of followers, but building the connections and engagement to tens of thousands to promote from would have to be enough. Besides, it was winter and I didn’t want to be frozen for ten hours on a set, in ripped clothing and zombie makeup with only a vegemite sandwich for catering. I needed to move ahead and believe me, I was motivated to make this happen!

In putting the information I was learning online into practice, the first thing that struck me was that a large number of claims just didn’t pan out. Some of these inaccuracies might be explained by the constant changing of algorithms on social media. 

Originally, with Facebook, if you had 10,000 people liking your page and did an update, then it was shown in all those newsfeeds. They then reduced the number of views you could have gradually, until it bottomed out to around 2.5% of your subscribers. Other social media platforms have followed, so if you worked hard to build a big base, you could consider that 97.5% of your effort had been taken from you.

Actors are still expected to show big numbers on their pages though, so despite the reach having been cut severely, there’s still a need to show that you have a big following. Unfortunately, algorithms were now in place on a number of platforms that restricted how many people you could add and how fast you could add them. I’m sure that these were tightened on a couple of platforms during the months that I was doing this exercise. I got my twitter account “time locked” a few times, as well as getting temporary posting suspensions on Facebook. 

Better Be Safe Than Sorry

I sent messages to contest the locking of my pages but either received no answer or just got automated responses. This had me questioning how safe my accounts were. What if I put in all this hard work, over years and the account itself was permanently locked or deleted?  When you use social media, you are at their mercy because they own the platform.

I felt that there are too many risks and changes to treat social media as a viable long-term marketing option, but what about the short term? Would you save money if your campaign was just four months in the running?

The wage cost to get someone to do what I did would be over $17,000. I built the twitter to 14,100 subscribers. Instagram was a later one in this process for me was just shy of 3000 when I finished this exercise.

My band page for Facebook is only at 500, and unless I pay them to promote, it’s unlikely to grow fast. Facebook was amongst the first to put in algorithms and they lead the pack. They’ve got it all stitched up tight. I just couldn’t find any way to get decent growth for free on their platform. 

Facebook did give me a free advertisement as a promotion though and that would have averaged out at around $1:00 per like if I’d been charged. If I consider that between platforms, I probably gained an extra 17,000 followers and that the wage cost of my work was around $17,000, then it’s pretty much neck and neck in that the cost of advertising for subscribers is close to wage cost of getting them yourself.

Were My Efforts Wasted?

In any event, I’m not disappointed at the results of my efforts because I had to have these promotional platforms and I do use them often. A twitter post tends to get me around 1,000 impressions. My Instagram engagement is also healthy. These results are perfectly fine for a hobbyist that didn’t want to brave the winter cold, but if I’d been tasked to do this for work and brought back these figures to my boss …. Well, I think I’d be looking for a new job around now! The click-through rate is abysmal and would just not make this viable for a business that wants to sell products online.

My conclusions are that social media is a house of cards. You can’t plan effectively because changes occur quickly and often without warning. You can lose everything you have built, out of the blue and not even know why your page was locked or deleted.  At the same time, you also can’t ignore social media due to so many using it on a daily basis.  I would suggest treating it as a short time proposition while keeping an ear to the ground for the next big thing that is bound to come along.


David Black

Sole Trader at David Black


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